Monday, August 27, 2012

Urban Witchery

“Once a Witch” by Carolyn MacCullough

Tamsin is a normal girl in a family of witches. She’s an outcast in a family of outcasts. Her grandmother predicted that Tamsin would change the fate of her family and would be the most powerful witch in generations, but it seems she was wrong. Luckily, Tamsin goes to boarding school in New York City and can at least be among people like her, those without Talent, and away from a family that makes her feel lacking. But with the family’s ancestral home in upstate New York, their pull is never far away. While back at home for the summer, a stranger comes around asking for the family’s Talent in locating a lost object. As she’s the only one present, Tamsin decides that she will find what the man wants by herself and prove to her family that she is an asset even without magic. But what starts as a ploy to impress the relatives, turns into a course of events that may bring back old enemies and ruin the family forever.

“Once a Witch” is an urban fantasy. Tamsin is a typical YA character, Angsty, upset with her lot in life, but likable. She drinks and smokes on occasion and is not perfect, but has ambition to make her own way in life away from her family, thus she is relatable. What adds to the novel are secondary characters Rowena, the perfect one in the family, and Gabriel, the hunky childhood friend. There were times I found myself not wanting to put this book down. It is short and flies by, so part of the appeal is finishing it quickly and finding out the ending. The plot has some points to build on, with the family history and all the Talents, but is not puzzling and is simple to follow. Overall it was nothing thought provoking, but a fun YA novel. To those who like urban fantasy, and modern day magic practices, give this a try. There is also a sequel to Once a Witch called Always a Witch. Another YA urban fantasy series that might be worth your time is Blue Bloods by Melissa De La Cruz about New York's wealthiest family and their blood sucking secrets...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Jane Austen Mystery

I have a penchant for Jane Austen and material inspired by her or her works. Can’t help it! Her novels hit home for me and I’m not alone in this view. She is a literary mastermind and has made a killing in the literary and film community, even if she doesn’t reap the benefits these days seeing as she’s six feet under. Jane Austen fan fiction is fun to read, but hardly EVER done right. How do you imitate an author with a voice from a different era and a distinct understanding of her characters and society in an accurate manner? You don’t. You shoot for the moon and land among the stars.

Well, Death Comes to Pemberley  by P.D. James is the Jane Austen wannabe up for discussion this week. Eight years after their marriage, Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam plan to hold their annual October ball. On the eve of the ball, a dark and stormy night of course, tragedy ensues. George Wickham is back at Pemberley as a suspect to one of his friend’s murders.  Could murder be another item to add to his rap sheet? The novel takes place over several months as the case is taken from Pemberley, to the local courts and then to London where a decision is to be made on Wickham’s guilt or innocence.

First let me start by informing you that PD James is a mystery/thriller writer. She wrote the book The Children of Men, which some of you might remember as a Clive Owen movie. But for the most part, she does mystery and is not a Jane Austen fan fiction writer. The novel is apparently meant as more of a mystery with the backdrop of Pemberley, than a Pride and Prejudice fan fiction with murder.

Small amounts of what has happened since we last left off with our characters is given, but mostly, the novel dives into the present. The novel jumped between characters, following Elizabeth sometimes and Jane others, but mostly it stuck with Darcy. He is the male and thus decorum dictates that he is in charge of making sure the proceedings of the murder and the ensuing trial are arranged. Not work for the ladies. Jane Austen has a heightened sense of understanding of character and although I felt James started off well, I did not feel attached to my characters like I do in Austen’s novels. I was disappointed by the way James portrayed characters like the Colonel.

The epilogue felt so misplaced. It went from the wrap up of the murder to Elizabeth and Darcy talking about the past and mistakes they made when they were first getting to know one another. James tried to have it both ways, as a mystery and Pride and Prejudice follow up, but the take on the characters and their lives now just wasn’t there and the epilogue felt like a cop out trying to give Jane Austen fans a little of their favorite book.

Jane Austen’s voice was slightly present, but the ensuing novel felt more like a gimmick to draw in a certain audience than a tribute to one of the great English writers. If you like mystery and police procedurals, than perhaps you should try this, but I don’t even think it’s that interesting as far as mystery novels go.

Verdict: Disappointing, but not unreadable. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

My Weakness for Princess Books Falls Flat

“The Princess and the Hound” by Mette Ivie Harrison

Magic use to run freely in the kingdom of Kendel, but after a legendary prince was turned into a bear, animal magic is banned. Animal magic practitioners, who can call on animals, talk to them, listen to them, and even change others into animals are cast out and hunted down inquisition style.

Centuries later, Prince George is born and as he grows he learns about his own animal magic. This is a secret he must keep for fear of death. But keeping the secret costs him his health and happiness. After his mother’s death, the young prince plunges himself into his duties and hiding his magic.

Princess Beatrice comes from a neighboring kingdom that has a rocky relationship with Kendel, so a marriage between the Princess and Prince George will hopefully help create a better relationship between the kingdoms. Beatrice is said to be odd and always have her hound by her side. There is something off putting about this woman, but George feels pulled to her and her dog.

Secrets always have a way of getting out and when Prince George’s father, AKA the king, falls ill, the relationship between the Prince and Princess takes a few turns.

The cover and title of this book made me think of a Beauty and the Beast type story, and it wasn’t too far off to assume that, but unlike the fairy tale, I did not find myself pulled into the story. Here’s an example of why I should not judge a book by its cover.

Although written well, the story never took off. When action and adventure should have occurred I found myself sloshing through this book like walking through muck in a swamp. Sure it was no “Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire”, but the characters were boring. Harrison created beautiful back stories for them, but the characters themselves had no charisma or charm. She relied too heavily on setting up Prince George’s childhood, which explained his issues when he is a teen, but diving into his past did not help with his future. The idea of animal magic is not something that I’ve seen put into words like that, but the idea is somewhat stale. Magic that is banned is not exactly new. It was a fresher take on the idea, but it wasn’t interesting enough to tempt me into reading the second and third books (“The Princess and the Bear” and “The Princess and the Snowbird”). I dislike disliking princess books. Wah, wah, wah.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Story a Day Keeps the Doctor Away...Storytelling and Humanity

Jonathan Gottschall sets out to show how humans are tied to stories and fiction in his nonfiction work “The Storytelling Animal: How stories make us human”. They are essential to everyday life, play, and mental attitude. You may be thinking, well that’s just silly! I don’t tell stories and I don’t hear storytellers, or even read all that often. Well, Gottschall will tell you you’re not looking at a wide enough angle.
Storytelling is everywhere. Through the thousands of years human beings have been on this earth, we have made stories essential. If, as some claim, fiction and stories are wasteful and unnecessary, then why did they not evolve out? No we might not all sit around listening to our parents recite Sleeping Beauty for the hundredth time, but we function on a daily basis in the realm of the story. 

As Gottschall explains, the mind is a storyteller. We dream nightly, even if we don’t remember, creating events in our head. Dreams help us work out life situations and see the endings to different scenarios. One argument that Gottschall presents for why we dream is because we need to practice. Dreaming gives us the chance to see the endings to different scenarios, feel what it’s like to punch that person you hate without the ramifications of so doing. Then there are daydreams. Living in our heads and telling ourselves fictions about what we want and how we get it. 

When we are unable to explain our world, we fabricate stories. We find explanations because the human mind does not respond well to having no answer. Our minds are created to lie, to fib, to tell stories. In split brain patients, when the left (reasoning, speech center) side of the brain saw an image, then picked the object that was associated with said image and explained why they picked that object. However, when the right (creative) brain saw an image and picked the object associated with the scene, the left side of the brain could not explain why that object was chosen because the brain was not connected to the other side, and the left (communication) side was unable to comprehend what the right side saw. Instead of saying ‘I don’t know’ the patient’s brain made up an explanation. 

Humans are supposed to tell stories about themselves. We need to alter our memories to be more favorable to ourselves, make us be the protagonist of our own story. Gottschall says, “A healthy mind tells itself flattering lies. And if it does not lie to itself, it is not healthy…positive illusions keep us from yielding to despair.”

In the end, Gottschall talks about the future of fiction and how many say it is dying. Quite the opposite is happening in his opinion. People crave story more than ever. Movies, TV show, videogames, even books. He cautions the reader that the problem in the future isn’t losing our stories and wandering away from fiction, it’s getting lost in it and forgetting to live in reality. Virtual realities, MMORPGs, LARP are already popular, but think about when we get better technology, when we can nearly live inside of these worlds with our senses intact there. As Gottschall says, when you’re playing God, why would you ever want to stop?
Jonathan Gottschall gives a fascinating, well researched, convincing look into how storytelling is not dead, and is essential to humans. This was an easy book to consume and a very interesting subject, at least to me. His writing style flows from paragraph to paragraph and he links his ideas throughout the book. In the end, his conclusions draw the book together and give a description of where we are heading. I recommend this book for writers, storytellers, readers, psychologists, and homo sapiens.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

MYSTERY!!! But not so much intrigue…

As I will readily admit, I am a huge fan of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series. After bewailing my lack of “Deadlocked”, the latest of the series, a coworker told me to try the Lily Bard series. This is another of Harris’s series about a young woman who lives in the southern town of Shakespeare. The first book in the series is “Shakespeare’s Landlord”.

Lily Bard is a mystery. She’s moved around for several years to try and escape a past that haunts her and finally settled in Shakespeare where she has become a cleaning woman for many local residents . Similar to Sookie, from the Sookie Stackhouse series, she is a strong willed woman working a blue collar job. Lilly practices martial arts and keeps herself separate from her neighbors. But when Lilly witnesses someone dragging away a body, she decides she can help figure out who the murderer is.  

I expected the book to have a few more references to Shakespeare or something that tied it more to the iconic bard. Instead what I found is another kick ass southern woman, but without all of the intrigue of Sookie. The only reasons I really kept going were to figure out who did it, and because it was such a short read. I don’t feel a need to continue with the series. Lilly was too off-putting, and that has a lot to do with her past, but I still could not recognize with her, which is something that’s essential for me to get into a book. There was not a lot of action either. The mystery itself was bland. Perhaps I was expecting the fun supernatural elements as in the Sookie series, but those are missing as well.

There are shelves of mysteries out there; ones with women with an ugly history looking to start over and ones with women who kick butt. I’d suggest you take a look into those in place of Lilly Bard. 

Fairytale/Folktale Adaption: Part 2 "The Snow Child"

First, how do you like the new look? I decided it was time for a change.

Second, back to my fairytale adaptions! I love a good adaption, and I hope you do too dear reader.

"The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

Jack and Mabel dreamed of a child. A little one to run around, help with the farm, create chaos, and be the most loved and cherished blessing in their lives. Unfortunately, fate had not been kind to them in this respect.

Alaska, 1920. On the frontier, Jack and Mabel started a new life, but after a couple years of attempting to live off the land, they have not gotten far. Isolated from the outside world and a quiet couple as is, Mabel finds her days lonely and Jack, ever aging, is finding the land more and more difficult to work. The harsh winters and even harsher landscape make living a chore and the wilderness bites at them. One night, on a whim, the couple builds a snow child with Mabel’s scarf and gloves. The next day, the snow child is destroyed, but wandering around the woods is a beautiful little girl with pale skin, hair as white as snow, and icy blue eyes who is wearing the scarf and gloves. Mabel and Jack slowly form a relationship with this young girl and build on it throughout the years until they think of her as their own child.

Intertwined in a story of heartache and wonder is a beautiful tale about a mysterious child and the couple who love her. This is a wonderful retelling of an old Russian folktale that is rich in atmospheric detail and runs beneath the surface. Here is an adult folktale come to life and Ivey does a beautiful job of showing the reader what frontier Alaska is like on a daily basis and how this couple came to be there, stay there, and eventually call it their home.

Although the novel is a bit slow, especially at first, it is worth a read. This is a story that will stick with you and make you shiver from the descriptions of the cold, dark days of Alaskan winter.